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Temporal patterns of human cortical activity reflect tone sequence structure


Despite growing interest in temporal aspects of auditory neural processing1,2, little is known about large-scale timing patterns of brain activity during the perception of auditory sequences3. This is partly because it has not been possible to distinguish stimulus-related activity from other, endogenous brain signals recorded by electrical or magnetic sensors. Here we use amplitude modulation of unfamiliar, 1-minute-long tone sequences to label stimulus-related magnetoencephalographic neural activity in human subjects4,5,6,7,8,9. We show that temporal patterns of activity recorded over particular brain regions track the pitch contour of tone sequences, with the accuracy of tracking increasing as tone sequences become more predictable in structure. In contrast, temporal synchronization between recording locations, particularly between sites over the left posterior hemisphere and the rest of the brain, is greatest when sequences have melody-like statistical properties10,11, which may reflect the perceptual integration of local and global pitch patterns in melody-like sequences12. This method is particularly well suited to studying temporal neural correlates of complex auditory sequences (such as speech or music) which engage multiple brain areas as perception unfolds in time.

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Figure 1: Phase tracking of tone sequences by the human brain.
Figure 2: Topographic distribution of sensor locations.
Figure 3: Changes in brain interactions among the four stimulus conditions.


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We thank L. Kurelowech for technical assistance, R. Srinivasan for advice and discussions, and S. Makeig, M. Kutas, T. Urbach and S. Hillyard for suggestions. This research was supported by the Neurosciences Research Foundation as part of its research program on Music and the Brain at The Neurosciences Institute.

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Correspondence to Aniruddh D. Patel or Evan Balaban.

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Patel, A., Balaban, E. Temporal patterns of human cortical activity reflect tone sequence structure . Nature 404, 80–84 (2000).

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